How Independent Makers, Small Businesses, and Consumers
Can Help One Another
Survive Thrive this COVID-19 Holiday Season
This post was inspired by two things: the incredibly thoughtful and supportive posts/ tags beginning to circulate asking people to shop small this Holiday season, crossed by my experience as an independent business navigating the typical difficulties we all face, currently being exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic.
It includes ideas that Consumers AND other Maker-Sellers can implement in hopes of making the coming period at least a little less stressful for all involved.
I pray it serves, and that you and your loved ones are well as we bring 2020 to a much needed close, escorting it out Kronos’ back door (and dumping it straight into the flaming trash pile where it belongs).
A couple of notes —
This is written mostly through the lens of those who make and ship physical goods (because that’s where my own experience stems from), but most of this applies in some form to consultants, astrologers, diviners, magicians for hire, healers, and any other independent provider of services and digital offerings.
I am addressing both Consumers and Owners because a big swath of my readership are sole proprietors and creators running small businesses. It is being offered out of an authentic desire to share some of what I have learned along the way (and am still learning!) in hopes of making all our lives better. What follows are simply my opinions, and your business is yours to run however you wish
At the end of the day, all of us human Spirits want most of the same things. So here we go…
First off, Thank You!
When you shop small, you make a meaningful difference for the better in people’s lives — you are putting food on the table, you are supporting creativity and the arts, and you are contributing to the prospect of a Sovereign existence in an otherwise soul-wrenching late-capitalist hellscape.
It is an act of significant resistance against the multi-national behemoths that have made small book shops and ma and pop cafes an increasingly endangered species.
It keeps money in local communities where it gets used to increase the standard of living for everyday people, as opposed to rotting away in off-shore bank accounts owned by the world’s most voracious and harmful billionaires and corporations. Who also don’t pay taxes ☕️
But since you’re here, I am sure you already know…
The Plight of the Independent-Creator-Small-Business Combo
Every once in a while you’ll see posts like this… which are, at their core, calls for empathy and understanding between a Maker and their Consumers.
They explain struggles that customers and clients sometimes don’t consider which impact our ability to at-all-times provide a similar level of service and turnaround consumers have been conditioned to expect from fulfillers such as Amazon (which it then exploits to further crush independent competition).
Sole proprietor creators are responsible for virtually every single job there is to do to keep a business running, from every division that exists:
- Crafting a business plan/ concept
- Naming, branding, and creating that business
- Building/ maintaining a website and professional infrastructure
- Maintaining/ growing social media accounts
- Creating written, audio-visual, and/or graphic content to draw an audience and create “buy in”
- Writing product and ad copy
- Uploading all of this to the web
- PR and customer communication
- Podcasts, lectures, and other appearances
- Research + Development for each product
- Investing in the raw materials to create what gets sold
- Producing/ creating the products, often by hand
- Bottling/ packaging them
- Designing, printing, and applying labels
- Building and packing boxes
- Dealing with the post office
- Fielding and resolving actual customer support needs… and filtering them from the (often entitled, uninformed, annoying, and time wasting, tbh) chaff that clogs inboxes on every platform
- Purchase orders
- Stock management
- the list
How much time can possibly be left over after all of that?
How quickly and well can all of that get done simultaneously?
There is virtually none, and it can’t.
One person, even with help, cannot possibly live up to these demands for long without completely and utterly burning out (which is in and of itself an existential threat to small businesses and independent creators…), unless customers understand these factors and allow us the time and space it takes to deliver the goods (literally and metaphorically).
Supporting small businesses is not only paying for their goods and services, it is being respectful of sole proprietors’ time and energy. It is being patient and low maintenance within reason.
Before anyone feels singled out or yelled at, I’d like to make 2 things completely clear (and don’t worry — we’ll get to Maker’s responsibilities and the need to be professional shortly!) —
- We are all consumers, so I am talking as much to myself and other Makers as I am anyone reading
- The VAST MAJORITY of consumers who shop small are lovely, good people going out of their way to consciously support others, and are patient and understanding and kind.
YOU are the clients I happily serve, and aspire to please until the day I die. YOU make all of the hard work — the blood, sweat, and (often literal) tears — WORTH IT, and I am grateful.
Every Maker is.
Over and over again, thank you.
The Impact of Covid-19
There are three primary ways Covid-19 has been negatively impacting the ability to do business, as far as I have experienced it…
- Delays in worldwide supply chains, leading to a lack of available supplies in a timely manner, and increased cost of bottles, caps, closures, etc.
- Delays and unreliability from shipping providers, and increased government intervention in the form of customs seizures, quarantined packages, and more regular collection of import fees.
- Being short staffed because of social distancing measures, which creates further delays as a result of too few hands on deck (hands needed to create, bottle, label, and ship product).
Every delay compounds another, and it is a HUGE struggle to get anything over the finish line right now.
A huge portion of the population is out of work (and everyone in dire straits has 1000% of my sympathies — St. Expedite may be able to help).
A huge portion of the population is too depressed, stressed, and under-motivated to work hard or quickly.
The rest of the people who can muster are having to work harder than ever in an attempt to keep all the plates spinning.
And that’s about to get worse during the Holidays…
What Customers Can Do to Help
Customers have a great deal of power to make it easier or more difficult to acquire the good service we’d all like to experience. Here are some simple suggestions to that end…
Perform a Shipping and Billing Address Audit
- Check your browser’s autofill settings to ensure current addresses are updated, correct, and formatted correctly
- Check the same for the addresses in your user account for any websites/ shops you plan on ordering through (before placing!)
Familiarize yourself with the Shop’s policies before submitting an order
Hopefully every shop has information on their lead times and policies somewhere obvious, whether it’s through a navigation link, attention grabbing banner/ popup, or clearly detailed on their Cart or Checkout pages. Please take the time to read and understand them.
If you are not okay with their current timeline or terms, then consider foregoing ordering from them at this time. Otherwise both parties are being set up for a bad experience from the start.
A lot of confusion and consternation stems from miscalibrated expectations between sellers and buyers. The best way to navigate that is with transparency, and up front.
Double check your order before Checkout
- Are your cart contents correct?
Double check that the cart reflects your desired unit numbers/ sizes/ colors/ and selections
- Are there any duplicates or lingering items from old orders that need to be deleted?
Sometimes caches do more harm than good!
- Take a few seconds to read through and visually confirm your addresses are complete and current.
- Add any information that would be helpful in an available notes field.
Things such as “I already have an order in, please combine”, or the date by which you would prefer an item be sent or received (if possible), or even words of appreciation.
Don’t underestimate the power of a kind note to make someone’s day! We never know who might have put in a bad one to break it.
Please resist the temptation to write in to check your order status until the window of time has passed that the store indicates it will take to ship, unless there is something that they *need to know or correct in the meantime.
Time spent answering emails about delays compounds them, because it is time that would otherwise be spent filling orders, or doing any of the 1000 other things that need done.
Remember that one person can only do one thing at a time, and that most of us are our own customer support “team”.
In most cases, the response to an order update is going to be “we are working on it” with no other meaningful information, so please check for a public update first if you are wondering about order status, and sit tight unless something seems wrong or the deadline has been blown.
Check the Tracking Number (First!)
If you were provided a tracking number, make sure to check that before reaching out to the seller, because most of the time, we have no further info than what the tracking number reflects.
Receiving a request saying something has not yet arrived when it is still very clearly in transit happens all the time Remember that Covid-19 and the holiday season are resulting in delivery delays…
INTERNATIONAL TRACKING HACK: Sometimes the tracking number drops off of one service when it leaves the country of origin, and begins being tracked by whatever local service will deliver it. Try entering your tracking number into Google if it ever stops working wherever you’re checking it. Sometimes other channels will appear through the search result with additional or updated information.
Use Dedicated Support Channels. Be patient again.
If you do need to reach out, please do it through a Shop’s official customer support email or their contact form first (unless they are on Etsy or whatever, but basically — use the channel that is most official).
This might be a little bit controversial, because some sole proprietors are small enough that they are happy to do business through DMs, or even do it primarily. So take this with a grain of salt if that’s the case, these are just my two cents…
Every independent creator and small business has social media accounts, and every social media account has an inbox. That can easily be 3-6 different places to check messages, some of which you can’t even reply back through a keyboard.
Many people begin by sending a message to a Facebook page, then issuing a Tweet or DM, then filing an official support ticket through the website. That much clutter creates very real inbox anxiety, which makes human beings want to check and respond to communications even less, and compounds delays in resolution. I’m sure you feel that with your own inbox(es) even if you don’t have a business!
Write in through the most official channel once and give it a few business days (or as long as they say their lead time is) before trying again, or trying elsewhere, s’il vous plait.
I kid you not I once had a client contact me through 4 different platforms, within minutes of one another (on a Sunday night!), about an exceedingly minor thing.
That type of behavior is not as rare as you’d think.
It’s a bad habit social media x hustle culture x “on demand” services have given society, and because many of us are connected with the personal profiles of independent creators it can feel appropriate to reach out that way, which leads to the feeling/ reality of never being off work, and leads to further burnout.
Just because you can get someone’s attention does not mean it is best for them to deal with it in that exact the moment. For that reason, I highly suggest Makers create official channels and even support ticket functionality. Set yourself up to scale, even if it’s not a problem yet.
Keep business matters where the business lives.
Lead with the Info Vital to Resolution, and Keep it Simple
Support needs are about resolving issues as quickly as possible… how they are written can do a lot to help…
Please lead with a clear statement of the issue (this item was missing, or this was marked as delivered but really wasn’t, &c.), followed by the information vital to fixing it (order and/ or tracking numbers, the correct address, anything pertinent), and lastly, any remedy you would most prefer for fixing it (if it applies).
I personally LOVE when people respond to the specific email confirmation the shop sends, because it means I know exactly what was purchased and their order number, and don’t have to dig for it. It also helps to use the same email address and/ or name you placed with. A lot of people use different ones and it can be very difficult to locate their order info.
Make sure the issue is clear and try to keep communications short, and that the person answering won’t need to write back for additional information before being able to provide resolution, to the best of your ability.
If there are many things you wish to say aside from what needs an actual fix, then consider writing in a second lower-priority message that can be answered at some later, less pressurized point.
If more support inquiries were short and simple, they would get answered a lot faster
Suggested Best Practices
for Shops + Independent Makers
While I would not say I subscribe to the old adage that “the customer is always right” (what kind of Archonic bullshit coming from a CEO who has clearly never worked in retail or service is that?)…
I do believe that customers should be treated with respect, consideration, and serviced to the best of our ability.
I believe in ethics, transparency, and doing business in mutual good faith.
I believe in appreciating and doing my best for the people who put food on my table and make creating my life’s work possible, and bend over backwards on a daily basis to them happy.
Many of us do.
While it is not professional to drone on about, I do look down upon the bad actors, frauds, and ripoff artists who cast doubt on the rest of our good works.
Sometimes that is the result of intentional chicanery, for others it is simply poor policy compounded by lack of giving a shit, basic ineptitude, or the result of sustained burnout.
Regardless, we should all strive to do the best we can — in magic and astrology, as in life, in relationship, and finally, in business.
Thank you to the other Doers of Good Works in Good Faith.
- I see you and know how hard you work.
- You are doing better than you feel you are right now.
That being said, here are some tips that may make customer interface more manageable and help avoid at least a few headaches…
Make Important Information Obvious, Calibrate Expectations
Post your current fulfillment timelines and any other important details somewhere obvious, whether through a banner/ popup, or on the Cart and Checkout pages.
Social media posts and newsletter blasts about these things are also helpful (in myriad ways!), but the information should also be native to the shopping experience.
Establish Achievable, Realistic Timeframes
When projecting timelines for shipment and customer support turnaround, ensure you are giving yourself at least a little bit of buffer time if you need it (meet Little Miss Guilty of This… but I am working on it!).
It is always better to set expectations lower and exceed them (to everyone’s delight), rather than giving yourself the anti-gift/ additional job of announcing delays or fielding an avalanche of support inquiries.
- How many days from placement can a client typically expect their items to ship?
- What is your placement cutoff date for guaranteed delivery by Christmas (or any other significant milestone)?
- Where is your shop located, if they want to try and calculate transit time after it enters the mail stream?
- Is there any information about shipping options it would be helpful to detail for your customers?
Consider Reducing Pre-Sale + Lead Times in General
This is a huge issue, especially as it pertains to esoteric publishing, but can impact all sorts of businesses. Anticipate that 1. there are always delays, and 2. because of Covid, there will be more delays.
Get something as close to the finish line as you possibly can before taking money for it.
If something unexpected happens, be forthright with customers about what and offer updated (realistic) timelines.
By and large, clients are very understanding and genuinely enjoy briefings on process.
I have structured my entire model around reducing lead times and fast fulfillment. It’s something people want in an age defined by convenience, but I understand that is not always possible or everyone’s method. However you do it, just strive to deliver what you promise
Make Use of FAQs and Auto-Responders
If you can anticipate the needs and questions of your customers and provide answers without you actually having to provide them in real-time, you will save yourself (and your clients!) work, redundancy, and frustration.
Take a Hiatus if You Need/ Can
I closed Shop for two weeks for the first time in 2.5 years in late summer, and it was a revelation how much I was able to recover, personally and professionally. You might not even know the extent to which you are running on empty (though I bet you do!), but it cannot be done for too long. Build breaks into your schedule.
Operate in Good Faith, Do Your Best,
+ Take (Really Good) Care of Yourself
Without you, none of this is possible. Effectively, you are your product or service.
Pace yourself, constantly audit your work-life balance, and participate in meaningful, effective self-care that helps each of us live up to the demands of the lives we have chosen, in difficult circumstances way beyond our control.
We All Want the Same Thing
For customers to be happy, to get them their purchases ASAP, and to resolve any issues which arise.
Leading with such an understanding and all of us doing what parts we are able will make getting through the rest of this year (and whatever else the world has in store next ) so much easier.
Thank you again for supporting small businesses (in more ways than one!), and helping Independent Creators serve you better.
If I may be so bold as to speak for us collectively — YOU make our worlds go ’round, and from the bottom of our (Immortal) Hearts, you are appreciated for it
If you would please excuse me while I go chew through some support tickets…